Home » Articles » Don’t Beat A Dead Horse

When muskie anglers speak of a body of water that is “on”, it means that a good number of muskies in that particular environment are responding well to presentations.  The reason they are responding well to presentations is most likely because they are feeding heavily in areas where anglers are working.  The reason the muskies are feeding is usually a combination of several environmental and biological factors.

If a lake or river is on, it will become apparent quite quickly.  If a body of water is off it will take a little longer to determine, as muskies often take a while to respond if it is  a marginal day (which is a good day by musky fishing standards).  If nothing is moving after several hours using appropriate tactics in appropriate locations, it is safe to say the lake or river is off.  It is possible that the muskies are on but in unexpected locations and/or responding to unexpected presentations.  However, this is unlikely as muskie behavior is usually fairly predictable even though they are challenging to catch.

I Search To Find Fish That Are "On"

I Search To Find Fish That Are “On”

Muskies are predictable, and an angler has to have confidence in what he is doing.  Human society has only reached as far as it has because of our confidence in our understanding of the world around us.  If we had no such confidence, we would still be walking the Earth’s landscapes scavenging for bugs, nuts, and rotten fruits; hoping in vain not to be eaten by felines, canines, and bears.  We know how best to catch muskies, it just doesn’t always work out because they are challenging; it is just one of the many characteristics that make them beautiful.

Many factors influence whether a body of water is on or not, including those within the aquatic environment, the local weather, and the fish themselves.  All of these factors are interrelated and affect each other directly.  A successful angler pays close attention to air temperature, cloud cover, wind speed, wind direction, precipitation, electrical activity, seasonal changes, water temperature, water clarity, water current, bottom material, shoreline material, moon phase, and levels of dissolved oxygen within the water.  These factors directly affect each other and in turn affect musky behavior.

Weather

Weather plays a huge role in turning muskies on and off.  Weather affects muskies in both direct and indirect manners.  The reason for this is that muskies (and all fish) are somewhat removed from the direct effect of the weather as their environment lies beneath the air water boundary.  Air temperature, light, wind, precipitation, and electrical activity all affect the aquatic environment, but their potency and nature are changed as they pass from air into water.

Air Temperature

Air temperature affects water temperature and thus musky activity.  However, air temperature often fluctuates many degrees in a matter of hours or even minutes, where as water temperature fluctuates in smaller degrees over longer periods of time.  A large change in air temperature usually only causes a relatively small change in water temperature, which usually has a big effect on muskies activity.

For example, it is July and the average daily highs have been holding steady in the mid 70’s F and water surface temperature has been steady at 73 F.  Then, on the three subsequent days, high temperatures only make it to 45 F, it will most likely take to the third day to drop water surface temperature to 70 F.  So, where as it took no more than 12 hours for the air temperature to change 30 degrees, it took the surface water near 3 days to drop only 3 degrees.  This relatively small change in water surface temperature has a large effect on musky activity.  The effect this has on the muskies is that it almost always turns them off, as the before mentioned scenario is obviously a cold front.

The rate at which air temperature affects water temperature varies depending on the disparity between the two and other external factors.  Large disparities between air and water temperature will cause quicker changes than small disparities.  High winds will cause wave action that will mix air and surface water, making for a faster change than low winds.  Sunlight, or lack there of, also affects water temperature.  Clear skies and calm water will cause water to warm or at least cool more slowly if the air temperature is much cooler than that of the water.

Temperature changes within the muskies’ environment often cause feeding or will shut feeding down.  Warming trends will usually cause muskies to feed unless stressfully warm water temperatures are reached.  Cooling trends usually cause muskies to shut down, unless it is triggering a fall feeding binge or dropping water temperatures down and out of a stressfully high range.

Sunlight and Cloud Cover

Sunlight has a large effect on musky feeding.  Muskies prove more often than not to be low light feeders.  Therefore, most anglers have the best success early in the morning, late in the evening, on overcast days, at night, and sometimes on windy days.  Many anglers overlook wind, but wind causes waves which keep much of the sunlight from entering into the aquatic environment.

In any season, I can trace most of my best fishing days to those that were overcast, those on which I hit a good low light window (morning or evening), or a combination of the two.  Cloudy mornings or evenings are great.  The only thing that seems to salvage a sunny calm day is a full moon.  Of course I have had those odd ball sunny calm days without a good moon phase that produced good action, but they have definitely proved to be a rarity.  Bright skies usually turn muskies off.

Wind Speed and Direction

Wind causes waves and water current.  Waves break up sunlight, which makes for favorable conditions.  Waves also roil up the water, a turmoil in which muskies can more successfully attack their prey.  Current attracts and concentrates forage fish which attract muskies, but muskies are drawn to current regardless of forage.  Muskies evolved in rivers, and though they are perfectly at home in the relatively still waters of lakes, they have a primal love of moving water they will never forget.  Good spots often become excellent when wind blown.  The wind usually turns muskies on.  A change in wind direction will also often trigger a narrow feeding window to occur.   If possible, when a change in wind direction occurs, get to the best spot possible or where a large musky has been recently spotted.  In rivers, strong winds blowing opposite of the current direction can cause current irregularities in a normally constant and unchanging currented environment.  Such conditions often turn river muskies on.

The wind has a tremendous amount of impact on water current, but again not all of the wind’s power is absorbed by the water.  As air is driven across the water’s surface, friction between the two causes some of the wind’s energy to transfer into the water, but certainly never all of it.  Obviously, water currents in a lake never move as fast as the wind, but river currents are a different story.  While water currents in a river usually never move as fast as air currents in a moderate wind, slower water currents are vastly more powerful than faster air currents because the water being moved has much more mass than that of the air.  Therefore the environmental effects of water current in rivers and even those lesser occurring in lakes and reservoirs should never be underestimated.  These effects will be discussed further at a later point in this article in the “Aquatic Environment” section.

Precipitation and Electrical Activity

Precipitation usually has an excellent effect on musky fishing, although a light rain or drizzle seems to be better than a driving rain.  However, it is hard to say, because driving rain is usually associated with electrical activity which most anglers don’t fish through.  Therefore, an accurate frame of reference is hard come by.  Some of my best catches have come from rainy conditions.  A late fall snow storm can also make for some amazing action.  Mixed precipitation during fall is also another personal favorite of mine.

Electrical activity associated with approaching storm fronts can really turn muskies on.  Approaching storms can cause extremely aggressive and sometimes unusual behavior in muskies.  Hitting these narrow windows can be both action packed and risky.  I try to hit a good spot and then get to shore, but I have defiantly been caught out in some dangerous weather due to foolish judgment.  While the brief window before electrical activity can be excellent, the muskies are often off for at least a few hours after the front passes.  If the weather was very severe it may even take a day or two to get right again.  However, this is just another set of circumstances where the bad must be taken along with the good.

Change Trigger and Weather Philosophy

Good combinations of weather will make for conditions in which muskies are on, while bad combinations will turn them off as off can be.  River environments and those with dark and/or murky water are less affected by poor weather, but tough weather is hard to overcome on any body of water.  However, long periods of bad weather make the action all the better when good weather finally hits.  During long periods of excellent fishing weather, action will slow from the level it was at when the weather pattern first occurred.  It seems the novelty wears off after a few days, and that any heavy feeding needs have been met and leveled off.  Usually good weather patterns are short, so muskies feed as much as they can, but when the good weather extends, action slows off as the good weather becomes the norm.  Often, a spell of bad weather is needed to get the muskies ready to feed when the next front moves in.  Change is good, and good weather wouldn’t be good if it wasn’t for bad weather.

The Aquatic Environment

Within the aquatic environment, which is the muskies habitat, there are also many factors which affect the level of feeding and activity of muskies.  These elements are water clarity, water current, water temperature, bottom material, shoreline material, and levels of dissolved oxygen within the water.

Water Clarity

Water clarity is a huge deciding factor of whether or not muskies are on.  There are many extremes of water clarity.  I have seen clay banked musky rivers turn to brown paint with zero visibility during a light rain.  On the other end of the spectrum, I have fished clear water lakes in northern WI that have 30’ of visibility during late fall when the small amounts of summer algae completely die off.  No matter what the clarity of the water is to the human eye, muskies can see many times further through the water, and not because of the glare we experience when looking through the surface from above.  The muskies underwater vision is still many times more effective than that of a human’s through a submerged snorkeling mask for instance.  The human eye is designed to see through air, obviously the musky’s eyes (and all other fishes as well) are designed to see through water.

In clear water, as an adapted top predator, a musky can see vast distances under water to detect both potential forage and danger.  In such environments, muskies are visually aware of everything that is occurring in vast sections of their environment.  Muskies that are on and feeding with a high level of activity will move in on presentations from long distances if they like what they see.  Obviously, when combined with the muskies’ lateral line sense and awesome physical ability, high visibility makes for conditions that aren’t even fair for the muskies’ forage.  I have watched small schools of large aggressive muskies hunt large schools of crappies in shallow water, and the results were devastatingly impressive.  The crappies were fast, but the muskies were faster and surprisingly accurate.  They slashed through the schools which of course scattered seemingly to safety.  But when the musky was next seen resting a little distance away, it almost always had one of the school’s larger crappies sticking half out of its mouth.  In my experience, the actual strike was too fast even to be seen (and the water temperatures where near freezing), but they were hitting the crappies with not only accuracy, but size selection as well.

Stained water doesn’t mean low visibility.  Staining is usually caused by tanic acid (bog stain), and only tints the water various shades of brown to near black.  Stained water does have less visibility than clear more colorless water, but it can still have good visibility.  Stained water is often murky, which will cause it to have reduced visibility, but clear water can become murky also.  Murkiness is caused by fine particulate mixing with the water causing a cloudy appearance that can range from very slight to totally opaque.  The fine particulate can be algae, zooplankton, fine clay particles, fine soil particles, fine sand particles, or combinations of all.  Algae and plankton are living and high volumes can exist when conditions are suitable.  They are also usually close to neutrally buoyant and suspend within the water column or float at or near the surface with no help from any current.  Sand, soil, and clay particles are heavier though and need current, an increase in current, and/or erosive factors to come loose from lake and river beds and banks and mix with the water.  These erosive factors are wind and/or precipitation.  However, extremely fine clay and/or silt particles can become permanently suspended in even calm water.  This phenomenon is known as a colloidal suspension.

Muskies in murky water can still see to a degree depending on how murky the water is.  If the water gets too murky, they need to rely much more heavily on their lateral line sense.  It has been proven that blinded muskies can still successfully feed, but this does not mean that they do not prefer sight assisted hunting.  In my experience, very murky water almost always turns muskies off.  However, slightly murky and/or stained water can provide the muskies with a little cover under which they can feel safe feeding.  Very clear water makes it easy for muskies to feed but it also makes them very spooky and cautious.  In clear water, muskies feed much less often, as they often wait for perfect weather, though under such conditions action can be amazing.  Muskies in stained and/or slightly murky water have a much wider array of conditions under which they will prominently feed and are thus on more often.  Muskies in clear water are also more susceptible to being put down by fishing and recreational pressure than those in water with a little less visibility.

If I am faced with tough conditions, I almost always fish water with reduced visibility, opting to hit clear water when conditions are just right.  However, stained and/or slightly murky water is also best fished under the most favorable weather patterns.  If visibility gets very poor, the use of loud steady retrieve lures is usually best.  Loud topwaters are my favorite.  Occasionally, I specifically target just such a bite.

Water Current

Water current plays a huge role in musky location and activity.  In lakes, reservoirs, and rivers; currented areas almost always attract muskies because of the effects it has on their environment and the food chain contained within.

As currented water moves across structure in these environments, the food chain kicks into high gear.  Plankton, aquatic insects, and crustaceans are knocked free from any nook they may have been holding in.  They, along with those that were already free floating, funnel through areas of natural concentration such as narrows, saddles between islands, channels, around points, and through areas with highly erratic solid structure.  Erratic structure includes boulder fields, areas of dense timber, weedbeds comprised of dense but separate clusters, or anything with similar characteristics to the before mentioned.  These erratic solid structures will cause the water to funnel as well.

As the lowest level participants in the food chain funnel through these areas, minnows, rough fish, and panfish are drawn by their presence to feed.  Muskies will feed directly on these, but they will also feed on walleyes, pike, and bass that follow the food chain in as well.  Factor into this excitement the musky’s natural current addiction, and it is no wonder these areas can become so hot.  Muskies also use currented areas to their advantage because there is often more dissolved oxygen in these areas.  The increase in oxygen content assists the muskies physically, as it allows them to sustain more prolonged aggressive predatory activity.

Wind and wind created currents also concentrate surface water by essentially pushing it to one end of the lake.  This can cause a few different effects.  The first is a seiche tide which makes the water on the down wind side of a lake or reservoir deeper, and the water on the up wind side shallower.  An increase in depth on a down wind piece of structure can cause feeding muskies to move in and feed or at the very least cause existing muskies to turn on.

The second effect is that these currents concentrate water of a certain temperature.  Warm surface water concentrates on the down wind side of the lake, and during certain times, such as spring when muskies are seeking out warmer water, these areas can become dynamite.  A lesser known phenomenon also occurs as the warm surface water gets pushed down lake.   On the upwind end of the lake, cooler water from lower layers wells up to replace the receding warm surface water and concentrates near the shore.  If muskies are stressed by high summer water temperatures, they may take this opportunity to move in from deeper haunts to feed comfortably in the shallows of these areas as they fill with relatively cooler water.

Water Temperature and Seasonal Change

Water temperature is a major factor that influences the seasonal feeding behavior of muskies.  Depending on the season, muskies have a wide range of temperatures and temperature trends that induce heavy feeding.  For example, cooling water and a 50 F water temperature during spring or early summer usually makes for terrible fishing.  However, the same conditions during fall can cause some of the best action of the year.  During summer, muskies prefer temperatures in the low 70’s.  During spring, the water doesn’t have to be warm to have good action.  It just needs to be warming.  There is little worse for turning a body of water off than a spring cold front.  During fall, steadily cooling water temperature is often better than long periods of stable water temperature.  The cooling water seems to create a sense of urgency.  The approach of winter makes them want to feed.

Winter is an interesting time in terms of musky activity.  In many bodies of water, muskies seldom if ever show any signs of activity during winter.  Surprisingly, ice cover is not always the determining factor of this.  Some northern bodies of water have good ice fishing action at least part of the winter every year.  Conversely, some southern bodies of water that never develop any ice cover are consistently marked by poor winter fishing.  Lakes with good ice fishing for muskies are usually stumbled upon by ice anglers who are targeting other species.  Reasons for the under the ice activity could be the need for additional calories to fully develop adequate numbers of eggs in females, insufficient forage during previous months, and/or simply a specific propensity within the individual population.

In bodies of water that do not freeze, muskies are more easily caught from waters where the muskies winter in shallower water due to forage location or the limits of the body of water itself.  Muskies may be on in the cold water; but precise, meticulous, and slow presentations are often a must.  If the muskies are spread out in deep vast lake basins and river channels, the feeding muskies may be near impossible to present to effectively.  During winter, my preference is to fish shallow southern rivers.  If much of the water has a fairly strong current, it is easy to predict that most muskies will be in the deeper slower holes.  From there, it is easy to pick these areas apart with confidence that most of the muskies where presented to properly.

When the heat of summer is on, muskies use their preferred feeding grounds less and less if the water temperature in these areas reach stressful levels.  Stressful temperatures for muskies begin at 78 F and once they hit the low 80’s the situation becomes drastic.  In such conditions, muskies seek cooler water, more currented water, deeper water, or a combination of the above.  These conditions will provide physical safety and proper feeding conditions.

Bottom and Shore Content

Bottom and shore content can play a large role in musky activity especially if the muskies are responding to daily or seasonal weather patterns.  For instance, if the shore and or bottom content of a lake or river are composed largely of clay, silt or other fine particulate; its water will become very murky in the presence of heavy rain and/or heavy wind.  Some bodies of water are more subject to turbidity due to precipitation rather than wind, and vice versa.  Some are heavily affected by both.  Turbid water usually turns muskies off, especially if the water in which they live has good clarity under drier and/or calmer conditions.  On such bodies of water, especially those that are turbid more often than not, muskies often come on in a big way when the water develops good clarity.  Watch for long periods of calm and/or dry weather, whatever is necessary for the particulate in the water to settle out.  Hit these waters hard during those times, and chances are, muskies will be taking advantage of the improved conditions and feeding heavily.

Certain bottom types encourage the water above them to warm faster than others.  In spring, active and feeding muskies are often attracted to bays or protected areas with dark bottoms often comprised of dead leaves, silt, and other decaying vegetation. These areas warm faster in the sun due to the dark bottom content than do areas with lighter colored bottoms such as sand.  During times when muskies seek warming water, such as early spring, these areas can really have active muskies.

Certain bottom content is best for growing the types of vegetation that muskies use most heavily.  Lakes in which the bottom content is composed mostly of sand, gravel, and, rock; seldom have large vegetative growth.  Most aquatic vegetation needs good soil to grow in much as plants on land.  Sandy content within the soil is fine, but straight sand has little if any nutrients to support good growth.  Anybody who has fished sandy infertile lakes knows that good weeds are hard to come by, but that when scraggly patches are located they can be dynamite spots.  Muskies love weeds and will work with what they are given.

The best weeds are those that grow in large vertical columns and have some spacing in between for the muskies to move comfortably through.  If such vegetation grows very thick with little spacing, then muskies will use the edges very heavily and will actually be easier to locate most of the time.

Dissolved Oxygen Levels

In rivers, where currents are usually much stronger than in lakes, muskies move between areas of varying current intensity based mostly on water temperature.  In cold water, muskies prefer low activity and thus do not want to expend the energy needed to hold in and use fast water, thus they seek out slower usually deeper water.  In excessively warm water, muskies need more oxygen but the water is only capable of carrying lower levels of dissolved oxygen.  To combat this, muskies often hold behind obstructions in shallow fast water where the emerging riverbed structure is causing the water to mix with the air, therefore increasing oxygen levels.  The muskies can hold easily while allowing the oxygenated water to pass through their gills with little if any effort on their part.  Muskies can tolerate much more current than most think.  It is impressive to watch them do their thing in water that is ripping along.  At moderate temperatures between these extremes muskies are generally found where the forage is regardless of current.

Unfortunately, I have watched some of my favorite musky lakes get very stagnant in the heat of summer.  I am sure they were nowhere near the point of summer kill, but when this happens muskies become very inactive.  As mention before, warm water cannot physically contain as much dissolved oxygen as cooler water.  On its own, water at 78 F and above will have low enough oxygen levels to make muskies much less active than at slightly cooler temperatures.  However, other problems (mainly algae bloom) often accompany overly warm water and make matters much worse.  Algae bloom causes the water to absorb more of the sun’s heat while blocking the sun from reaching aquatic vegetation.  At first, the lack of sun disables the rooted aquatic vegetation from carrying out its needed life processes, one of which is producing oxygen.  Sunlight isn’t directly used in producing oxygen.  Sunlight is used in photosynthesis which produces sugar that the plant uses for food, which creates the energy the plant needs for respiration, the process by which plants absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.  This further compounds the oxygen reduction within the aquatic environment.

If heavy algae bloom persists, it will often cause rooted aquatic vegetation to starve, suffocate, and die.  As the vegetation dies, the amount of shade and thus cool water it provides reduces as well.  Algae bloom can sometimes become so thick that it impedes the wind’s ability to produce wave action which is the main source of water oxygenation in lakes.  This may sound silly, but I have encountered patches of water so thickened by algae bloom that my boat slowed down when I motored through them.  Granted, it would be an understatement to say that I don’t have the hottest of boats, but it was still very thick

Moon Phase

Knowledge of moon phases is extremely helpful in determining whether or not muskies will be on or not.  It is a very external entity, as it interrelates with the above mentioned environmental factors very little if at all.  Yet, it is profoundly powerful in determining musky moods.  Moon phases have effects that reach far and wide and have the ability to simultaneously turn on many if not most musky waters across the musky’s home range.

My best moon phase action has occurred on full moons and the days prior.  Many people like the days following a full moon, but I have had nowhere near the results on these days than my results on the day of and the two prior.  It almost seems that the action builds and peaks and then the muskies take a break rather than the action slowly tapering.  I have experienced good action during new moon periods, but nothing quite as profound.  I have however talked to anglers who prefer a new moon to a full moon.

Get It Together

Understanding the environment and watershed in which a musky lives as well as how external factors affect it is crucial when determining whether or not the muskies are on in a certain body of water.  Checking on conditions through any resources possible prior to an outing will prevent wasting precious time and money.  A little homework goes a long way.  Obviously, on the water inspection will be the final determinant.  While fishing, quickly evaluate the water and other conditions.  If things don’t seem right and a possible better option exists, go for it if time and money allow.  Don’t beat a dead horse.

 

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.